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Robert W. Bone is a writer, author, editor and photographer. Since 1957, he has lived in a half dozen different countries and traveled to nearly 100. (All content is copyrighted.)
( Another draft segment from the forthcoming memoir: Fire Bone! When complete, it will cover some of Bob’s adventures in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. )
© 2013, 2014 by Robert W. Bone
It was during this 1960-1962 period that I felt I had really become a New Yorker. In particular, I loved Greenwich Village, occasionally drinking at the White Horse Tavern, which was favored by Dylan Thomas at a still earlier time. Many friends might have been described as “beatniks,” although I didn’t qualify for that description since I, at least, had a full-time job on a popular magazine.
After Hunter and Sandy moved out, the small apartment at 107 Thompson St. came under my control and remained that way for the next four years, even if I was not always in residence. It was often the scene of various dramatic events in our bachelor lives. Sometimes I shared the place with others, and other times I had all three rooms to myself.
The apartment was in a group of similar buildings sometimes known as the “McKinley tenements,” built in the nineteenth century to house immigrants settling in Manhattan. Number 107 was a block and a half south of Houston Street, which meant it was closer to being a part of “Little Italy,” and not strictly speaking in Greenwich Village. There was indeed a large number of Italian-Americans living on the street.
Nevertheless, those of us who were single and lived in this neighborhood thought of ourselves as Villagers. We 20 and 30 somethings were acquainted with each other more often than did neighbors elsewhere. (On my floor, Pete Swann had a piano in his place, and the hallway was often swelling with a chorus from a musical he was writing.)
There was once a city plan to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square, replacing Thompson St., and calling it Fifth Avenue South. Thankfully that never came to pass. But a long time after I and my beatnik contemporaries left this the area for good, it was dubbed “Soho,” (from SOuth of HOuston Street, and also inspired by London’s Soho neighborhood). It then was totally revamped into a chic neighborhood of art galleries, trendy boutiques, coffee shops, etc.
In my day, 107 Thompson had genuine character, and it was a gathering place for many friends. If it were still unchanged in the present era, it would be called a dump – maybe a slum.
Rental apartments of the type were often advertised in the Times classifieds using the term “tub in kitch,” meaning the bathtub was in the kitchen. A large heavy white enameled metal cover topped this fixture. Piles of dirty dishes would have to be washed and put away before anyone could lift off the heavy cover and take a bath.
The kitchen was the center of the three rooms of the apartment, which left a windowless bedroom on one end and a living room on the other. The living room was next to the pair of small windows which featured a less than stunning view of the fire escape and the brick wall of the adjoining building.
On the second floor of a six-story building, the flat seemed dark during the day. But one winter morning I woke up to find the room flooded with light. After rubbing my eyes, I discovered the reason: The fire escape was covered with snow!
A short time later, I made a project out of painting that portion of the fire escape white. This increased the daytime gemütlichkeit of the place considerably — especially around noon, when the sun shone unfettered in the chasm between our building and the one behind on Sullivan Street.
Hunter and I removed a portion of the wall between kitchen and living room and constructed a rather nice bar or counter between them. On the living room side I built bookshelves. We signed and dated the construction for the benefit of future generations who might someday admire this clever refurbishment.
The bedroom was also unique. The walls were white, and various artistic women who visited the place felt compelled to draw images alongside the double bed which barely fit into the room. They similarly decorated the refrigerator in the kitchen.
One thing everyone seemed to agree on. There was to be no television in the apartment. One day, I found a discarded TV set on the street and decided to bring it home. It turned out to produce sound but no picture.
That was just fine. I set it on the floor and placed some kind of material over it and positioned a lamp on top. Once in a great while I turned it on to listen to TV news or something that didn’t need a picture to get the gist of a program. Every now and then a visitor would ask if he/she could watch the Dick Van Dyke Show, or the like.
“You can listen to it, but you can’t watch it,” I said. Eventually, when more space was needed to store beer bottles, or something, we put the thing back out on the street again.
When the events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy occurred, I camped out for two or three days across the street in a basement apartment with Bahky Haak, a former girlfriend, who had a working TV.
For a time in 1961 and 62, my kitchen also served as a sort of beer factory. This was started by Sandy Conklin and myself, but was carried on with others later. The mysterious brown mixture was usually contained in a five-gallon jug which stood atop the refrigerator. A small hose from the system led into a 7-up bottle or something similar which contained water. As the beer fermented, its readiness for bottling could be estimated, by counting the number of bubbles per minute (bpm)in the small bottle.
If the beer was bottled too soon, there was a danger that it would explode. If it was bottled too late, it would end up being flat and tasteless. Of course mistakes were often made. And it should be noted that some of our furniture in the apartment was made of bottles of home-made beer.
A stack of beer cases might have a piece of plywood on it, and topped off with a lamp or a vase. Visitors to the apartment sometimes were unaware of these things until a sudden explosion would occur, sometimes in the middle of the night, scaring the bejeezus out of an unsuspecting guest. This was especially annoying when the bottle was one of those stored under the bed.
The beer was cheap. It cost us about ten cents a quart to make. John Wilcock came over and pronounced it pretty good. He wrote one of his columns in the Village Voice on making home-made beer.
An added complication to our beer operation was that in order to be tolerated, the beer needed be carefully decanted before drinking. We would pour it slowly along the side of a large pitcher, then toss away the sediment. This residue was highly laxative, and try as we might, we could never quite get rid of it all.
This was no problem except when the apartment was crowded during a party and we braumeisters sometimes lost control of the situation. Then we would hear a voice shouting from the other room, “Hey, don’t pour that stuff down the sink! Let me have it!”
I haven’t yet mentioned that our toilet room, while a private one, was nevertheless located “down the hall.” On party nights, a line formed outside the apartment and along the corridor toward the toilet door. Some party-goers would just give up and go home – which was a good thing, since we were usually overcrowded anyway.
My guess is that 107 Thompson St. looks very different today. I do know that some years ago, when I was just a visitor to the city, I had a look at the front door, which always used to be open. Now it was locked and boasted some kind of security system. I didn’t see inside, but I’ll bet that there are no longer four small apartments on a single floor, with one of them assigned to a hallway toilet. My guess is only two apartments each, and probably both with pretty nice bathrooms – and with no “tub in kitch.”